I'm starting to get the feeling that this season could be very special indeed for Reading FC.
For roughly a month now, starting with that cup win against Portsmouth that will probably be long forgotten if greater rewards do come our way next spring, the team's results and performances have been excellent. I honestly feel that this current squad has the ability, character and composition to finish at least in the playoff places. What's more, I think that we saw signs of life even amongst the wreck and ruin of last year.
Green shoots of recovery were evident last season
The 2-0 victory over Bristol city got me thinking about our away performances in the last year or so. Scrolling down the results page — not a particularly happy task, frankly — several games stood out. We beat Ipswich home and away. Same with Norwich, who deservedly got promoted. Middlesbrough got to the playoff final, we beat them away as well. We comfortably beat Derby and Wolves (two teams who many assumed would make the playoffs last year and almost did) away from home. Our cup run meant away games against Huddersfield, Cardiff and Derby again — we won all three, and deserved to do so.
My point here is that it's very easy to look at last season as a write off, a shambles, a complete disaster. And to be absolutely fair, it mostly was, both in terms of off the field issues and on field results and performances, especially towards the back end of the season. However, we must not forget that in and amongst the misery were some really good, professional away performances against teams who were challenging for higher honours come the end of the season. It is possible to see a definite progression in our away performances in the big games from when Steve Clarke came in, through the spring, through the summer and culminating in the team we saw dispose of an admittedly poor Bristol City side with consummate ease. The green shoots of recovery were there last year in my opinion, in games like the ones previously mentioned, which showed that these players and this style of football can go far.
Importance of the formation
The formation, which for the most part was a 4-2-3-1 away from the Madejski last season, was crucial. It allowed a battering ram of a centre forward — step forward please, BFR — to pin the centre backs, giving the creative three behind him license to roam and inflict as much damage as possible. Because teams naturally try and push forward as much as possible at home, especially against a side in the lower echelons of the league as we were last year, players such as McCleary, Robson-Kanu and Blackman were often left copious amounts of space and time in which to run at defences. Sides naturally have their midfield a little further up than when playing away from home, meaning the space between midfield and defence can sometimes look like a yawning chasm when you lose the ball. The Derby game in the cup last year illustrates this perfectly. For the winner, the parts of the team all do their jobs perfectly. Danny Williams scraps in midfield and heads it to Robson-Kanu. HRK turns, scampers away from the covering Derby players and slides it to Yakubu — cue bedlam in the away end.
There are other examples; Williams v Wolves away, where a quick breakaway resulted in a cross being headed back for him; Blackman v Huddersfield, profiting from another quick move and a slide-rule pass from Robson-Kanu; Derby away on the last day when all three of our goals were directly or indirectly from breakaways, and various others throughout the season.
Steve Clarke also must be credited for getting the organisation spot on during these games. All ten outfield players worked as hard as they could — even HRK and Pog were regularly seen moving at the occasional jog when tracking back. The defence was superbly marshalled, and screened by Williams, Norwood and/or Chalobah. Hector grew as the season progressed, culminating in perhaps our finest defensive showing under Clarke against Arsenal at Wembley. Obita and Gunter also provided the sort of full back play required during tough away games; defensively solid at first, but happy to go forward when needed and help their winger.
While there was a huge amount of work required over the summer to turn the side who had moments of quality in away matches into this team, who look defensively resolute and consistently dangerous on the road, I believe it's important that we look at parts of last season not as the end, but as the rebirth, of Reading FC away from home.